As Netflix Blinks on Theatrical Runs, Which Directors Will Get A-List Treatment?

Illustration by: Rafa Alvarez

By giving Alfonso Cuaron’s 'Roma' an exclusive release in movie theaters to court Oscar voters, the streaming giant now must manage the expectations (and egos) of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Guillermo Del Toro, who may want the "Cuaron treatment."

Over the past several months, Netflix film chief Scott Stuber — the former Universal executive whom Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos brought aboard in spring 2017 — logged numerous calls to major theater chains in the U.S. and overseas. The question: Would they put Alfonso Cuaron's Roma and other awards contenders in theaters if Netflix withheld them from the service for a couple of weeks? Insiders say Stuber's entreaty was, essentially, "We heard you. Filmmakers want to be in theaters. What will it take to get there?" His plea was rebuffed.

Netflix is pushing ahead regardless, and in a surprising nod to the importance of the cinematic experience after years of accusing theater owners of stifling innovation, the streamer will give Roma and two other awards contenders a short, exclusive theatrical run in a smattering of indie cinemas willing to play its product. Netflix insiders call it an evolution. But the vast majority of exhibitors call it a "token" course correction designed to woo skeptical Oscar voters as the company pursues its first best picture prize. The black-and-white, Spanish-language Roma is considered a frontrunner for awards.

But in cracking the window open, Netflix now risks similar demands by other top filmmakers who are accustomed to the glory of a big-screen splash. Already, at least one top talent agency is referring to Netflix's Roma move as the "Cuaron treatment," as in, "My client needs the Cuaron treatment." And A-list filmmakers who have been paid premium prices to make movies at Netflix with the concession of no theatrical exclusivity — including Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Bay — are reconsidering.

"Most directors ultimately want theatrical releases for their movies," notes one top agent, who spoke anonymously because of dealmaking sensitivity. He believes the decision is a win for Netflix — if the experiment works and Stuber proves that his original films can become prestige sensations on the level of Netflix series Stranger Things and The Crown. In addition to Roma, the Coen brothers' Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and director Susanne Bier's Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, will play exclusively — for one week in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London — before debuting on Netflix this fall. Insiders say the company's other awards contenders, including Paul Greengrass' 22 July and Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, would have received an exclusive theatrical window as well had the timing worked out and the negotiations been less complicated. Roma will get even more big-screen time, opening in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City on Nov. 21, more than three weeks before its Dec. 14 Netflix debut.

While the streamer has had undeniable success in TV — it tied with HBO for the most Emmy wins this year — it hasn't been able to repeat that glory on the film side. Many believe the lack of proper theatrical releases has hampered that effort. Some films, like 22 July, get a limited day-and-date theatrical run in order to qualify for awards and allow a filmmaker to direct fans to theaters, but Netflix stopped reporting grosses after its Beasts of No Nation flopped in 2015, so its movies aren't mentioned in box office headlines. Insiders don't expect grosses to be reported for Roma, Bird Box or Buster Scruggs. "When you make a movie for Netflix, no matter how much they are willing to pay, it’s like a tree falling in a forest," says one veteran Hollywood executive.

While Roma is receiving the biggest push from Netflix this year, a three-week exclusive run is far from enough to satisfy most theater owners, including goliaths AMC, Regal and Cinemark. Exhibitors insist on a three-month window for DVDs or Blu-rays and 74 days for electronic sell-through on digital platforms such as iTunes. "What Netflix has suggested, with super-short theatrical runs prior to streaming, is little more than a token," says National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian, who notes that if Netflix is serious about the cinema experience for filmmakers and moviegoers, it would follow Amazon and many independent distributors and offer a robust theatrical run. "The issue comes down to the exclusive window," Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi told investors the day after Netflix's Oct. 31 reveal, adding, "As it currently stands with a one- or two-week window, I don't anticipate that we would be playing the Netflix films."

So Netflix will have to continue to "four-wall," or rent, theater screens. Circuits it does business with include the indie chains Landmark, Laemmle and iPic, which happen to deliver a disproportionate number of awards voters. "If you hide your numbers, your movies don't get any profile. That's what a proper cinema run does — establish the run of the product," says a rival studio executive. "And if three weeks doesn't work for Roma, what happens to Martin Scorsese's big-budget movie next year? What if he says, 'For The Irishman, I really want a couple of thousand runs.' Maybe he tells Netflix, 'You have to have a more traditional window.' "

Scorsese's The Irishman is one of several Netflix films that could represent the next battleground. Soderbergh's The Laundromat has the earmarks of an awards contender with the topic (true-life political money laundering) and talent (Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman). Same for The Pope, the drama from Fernando Meirelles about Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins).

Meanwhile, Netflix has yet to explain why Hastings told investors in October that Roma would debut day-and-date on the service and in more than 100 theaters worldwide. "We believe in our member-centric simultaneous release model for our original films and welcome additional theater chains that are open to carrying our films to provide the shared-viewing, big-screen experience to their customers who enjoy that option,” he wrote in a note.

Analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners has an easy explanation for the about-face. "There is nothing Reed Hastings would love more than to walk around with an Oscar and Emmy and say he's conquered the industry," he says. "If this gets them an Oscar, then it's great PR."

And given the money that Netflix is throwing at talent, perhaps egos can be checked and not every A-lister will demand a theatrical run. Michael Sugar, the Oscar-winning Spotlight producer with a first-look deal at Netflix, calls the Roma move an "excellent decision," adding, however, "I don't think every project needs to be released theatrically."

A version of this story appears in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.